We visited Haddon Hall during the Christmas opening on 14th December 2019. I have wanted to visit for a long time. Haddon is located in the heart of the Peak District, sitting high above the River Wye and is one of England’s most fascinating and timeless stately homes and possibly it’s best medieval fortified manor house.
Even before you enter the grounds there is a feeling this is a spellbinding place, literally steeped in 900 years of history and intrigue. Upon crossing over the bridge and walking up to the main entrance you can see how the building has evolved over the centuries, with the unique, higgledy-piggledy architecture that is distinctly not from this age.
Simon Jenkins, in his book England’s Thousand Best Houses, asserts that “to wander up the slope to the worn gatehouse steps and enter the ancient courtyard is as agreeable an experience as England can offer”
“to wander up the slope to the worn gatehouse steps and enter the ancient courtyard is as agreeable an experience as England can offer”Simon Jenkins, England’s Thousand Best Houses
Visiting during Christmas gave the Hall an added sense of magic with every room being exquisitely decorated which made me imagine how people here have celebrated this period centuries ago, what they would have eaten and drank, what they got up to and how they celebrated. As we wandered around, drifting in and out of the wood panelled spaces soaking up the ambience and sense of history, the rooms throughout were groaning with ancient objects, including medieval tables, chairs, desks, chests, bureaus, cupboards and even some Elizabethan dog gates. The powerful feeling and sense of being in such a historic space was truly apparent.
A brief History
The Vernon family acquired the Manor of Haddon by a 12th-century marriage between Sir Richard de Vernon and Alice Avenell, daughter of William Avenell II. Four centuries later, in 1563, Dorothy Vernon, the daughter and heiress of Sir George Vernon, married John Manners, the second son of Thomas Manners, 1st Earl of Rutland. A legend grew up in the 19th century that Dorothy and Manners eloped. The legend has been made into numerous novels, dramatisations and other works of fiction. She nevertheless inherited the Hall, and their grandson, also John Manners, inherited the Earldom in 1641 from a distant cousin. His son, another John Manners, was made 1st Duke of Rutland in 1703. In the 20th century, another John Manners, 9th Duke of Rutland, made a life’s work of restoring the hall. It is now the private residence of Lord and Lady Edward Manners.
The house survived the Civil War and the War of the Roses, a fate the Manners family’s main seat Belvoir Castle did not share. But from the 1700s Haddon was locked up and remained untouched for more than 200 years.
On entering the doorway of the 14th Century buildings from the lower courtyard there is a stone Roman alter in the porch reported to have been found prior to 1695 (its first known mention in Camden’s Britannia) by the river in the grounds of the hall. It is dedicated to the God Mars. To the left are the roomy kitchens and various annexes and to the right is the entrance to the Great Hall which is separated by wooden panelling as was customary back in those times.
The Medieval Banqueting Hall dates to the 1300’s and looks today exactly what it must have looked like 600 years ago. It remains furnished with its original Elm Dais table which sits along the whole width of the room and is raised above the normal floor which shows that is was always used by the family who owned the Hall as well as any prominent and important visitors (the raised platform was symbolic of being in a higher social class than those dining on the lower floor). Visiting during Christmas table was covered with large garland and huge amounts of festive decoration. It has three enormously thick legs supporting the table like ancient eagles’ claws.
The wood is absolutely battered with marks and wear and tear from over five centuries of use as the master table. It is fascinating to think of all of the people who have dined on this table and the sights and sounds it has been witness to and the banquets and feasts it has held. Behind this table hangs a tapestry gifted to the family by visiting Henry VIII.
Another fascinating oddity within this room is the ‘sobriety manacle’. It was put there in medieval times to chastise anybody who had not had their daily quota of alcohol. Apparently, if you weren’t drunk you were a heretic, and you would be cuffed whilst liquor was poured down your sleeves.
King John’s Wall
In 1193, the future King John granted a licence to Richard de Vernon to build a curtain wall of not more than twelve feet in height enclosing the Chapel, the Watch Tower and a number of timber buildings. We walked down alongside the remaining 12-foot wall which is by far one of the oldest parts of Haddon.
The Parlour or sitting room is where the family would relax. The old panelling dates from 1545 and there is a carved frieze round the top with shields of the Vernon family and the boar’s head which is the family crest. The ceiling is a painted plaster ceiling of Tudor roses. It has been said that this chamber is as fine as an example of late medieval chamber as you could wish to find and I certainly agree with that as the roaring fireplace fed the room with light and warmth and the crackle could be heard as the mind wandered back four and a half centuries.
Interestingly there are two carvings in the window recess which are Henry VII and his wife, Elizabeth of York. Above the fireplace is carved ‘Drede God and Honour the Kyng’. There is a long dining table which is still used by the family.
Sir Henry Vernon (1441 – 1515) was the Controller of the household of Arthur, Prince of Wales, eldest son of Henry VII of England and heir to the throne until his untimely death. Vernon was in high favour of the King following the Wars of the Roses. One apartment at Haddon Hall was known as the “Prince’s Chamber”, as Arthur spent much of his time at Haddon. Vernon was also one of the witnesses to the marriage contract between Arthur and Katherine of Aragon.
The young prince’s early death was a blow to the influence of the Vernons, depriving them of the opportunity for royal patronage. The same year that the prince died, Vernon abducted an heiress, the widow Margaret Kebell, to marry his own son, Roger, possibly as an attempt to recoup some of the expenses he had incurred from years of royal service. His action, a blatant abuse of his authority, brought rebuke and a heavy fine from the king. Nevertheless, Vernon was still sent to accompany the king’s daughter, Margaret Tudor, to Scotland for her marriage to James IV of Scotland, and he was later pardoned for his role in the abduction. He served as High Sheriff of Derbyshire in 1504.
An interesting tale on Prince Arthur’s time at Haddon can be found here – http://texts.wishful-thinking.org.uk/PeakTraditions/PrinceArthur.html and herehttp://winsham.blogspot.com/2014/10/prince-arthurs-vision-tudor spectre.html?_sm_au_=iVVnH8psFM6MNqkH7fqVLKHJ6jW1F
Elizabethan Long Gallery
The long gallery at Haddon is perhaps the most impressive room. It is reputed to be one of the most beautiful rooms in England and it did not disappoint. At 110ft long, it is an architectural masterpiece of the renowned Elizabethan master mason, Robert Smythson. The three vast bay windows that overlook the valley let in an incredible light and make the room feel bright and airy even by today’s standards. This room was home to the longest Christmas card I had ever seen – one that was to be sent to the Queen signed by yours truly and also the largest number of Christmas trees I have ever seen in one room.
The chapel is the oldest part of the house, with parts of it being built during William the Conquerors reign and is mentioned in the doomsday book. In former times this was also the parish church of Nether Haddon. The original chapel was part of the 12th century Hall, though it was expanded during the 14th and 15th centuries, and the present Chancel dates from 1427.
The chapel contains some of the most incredible medieval wall drawings which were painted in the 15th century and then painted over during the reformation.
“As you are now, so once were we. As we are now, so you will be.”
Haddon on set
Haddon has been used as a film location for decades with movies such as The Other Boleyn Girl, Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth as well as various TV dramas including Hollow Crown and Gunpowder. It has hosted films stars such as Cate Blanchett, Keira Knightley, Judi Dench, Benedict Cumberbatch, Scarlett Johansson, Natalie Portman and Margot Robbie.
I would absolutely love to return in the full midst of summer. There can surely be not many more historic and picturesque settings in the whole country than here at dusk on a summer’s eve.